Before the ghosts of the old couple braved the house, they armed themselves with tools from the garden shed. Bill liberated an iron trowel from the cobwebs and clutched it in a clammy hand. His wife, Matilda, chose a rake, bits of grass and earth clumped around the curved metal spikes like soiled claws.
They eased the door to the shed shut behind them, tiptoeing across wet lawn lit solely by a slivered moon. The only sounds were the old man’s knees, crackling with each step. Matilda wrinkled her nose in disgust that her husband’s arthritic joints might give them away. To what, she wasn’t sure, yet the old home drew them like a thing to be feared, a thing that promised change in the marrow of their bones.
So they crept, unsure if the new truth would be better than the old. Their dim shadows trailed past the hot tub and the garden shed and toward the street as if to pull them back from their two-story colonial and what lay beyond the front door.
A single light flickered in an upstairs bedroom, the golden lamp on the desk at the window that Matilda had bought second-hand, its insistent beam like the thrust of a lighthouse, both a warning and invitation.
Matilda shivered as the damp night air settled about her hospital gown. She knew Bill was unlikely to give up his bathrobe, but she made a big display of her whole body shaking. He ignored her as he always did, the hem of his graying cotton robe dragging dirt and worms along as he walked.
They approached the porch, concrete steps slick with dew and ascended, one creaky joint at a time. Bill held up his hand to catch his breath, his chest rising and falling with the gurgle of phlegm bubbles rasping in his throat.
Matilda cocked her head to listen with her good ear. She thought she heard the shuffle of feet on the other side of the door and a type of party music that hadn’t been popular since her youth, although it had a scratchy, far-off quality.
Yes, the more she listened, the more sounds gelled. Now she heard the clink of glasses, the shifting of fabrics, the hum of voices pocked by bursts of laughter.
A party, she thought, is it for us?
The weapons seemed silly in light of all that music. Matilda took the iron trowel from her husband and set it on the stoop with her rake. She smoothed her long white hair and knocked twice, clutched her husband’s arm and wished she had a finer frock for dancing.
The door swung inward. Many voices shouted welcome all at once. “Come,” they said. “Let us show you how it’s done.”
Together Matilda and Bill stepped across the threshold.
After the ghosts of the old couple braved the house, they saw each other as they were. The old man’s creaks were gone and Matilda’s wrinkled face glowed from some inner pink light. The night air lost its chill and in a whoop of insane glee they chased each other from the rickety stoop, down the slick cement stairs and into the backyard, where they stripped off their clothes and danced naked under the stars, wet grass between their toes, forgetting the aches and thumps and betrayals of their decaying former flesh.
Bill dashed to the hot tub and cranked up the heat and by some miracle — not the first or last of the evening — the water simmered almost immediately. Matilda followed close behind, tossing her mane of long, black hair.
Two pale figures, sweat shining on their moonlit skin, eased themselves into the cauldron and grinned, little cold bubbles flittering up around their legs and backs of their arms, as clouds obscured the slivered moon.
They were in a world of wet cheer, their bodies young again, their eyes no longer clouded, and the skin firming in places it previously drooped. The two of them leaned in and for the first time in too many years to count, they pressed their lips together, softly at first, experimentally, and then as steam crowned their skulls in wreaths of mist in the quiet backyard well after midnight, their fingers reached out gingerly and touched one another’s skin, catching a glimmer of what it was like the first time, when hearts raced for things other than caffeine and prescription drugs. When adrenaline surged at the sight of another person and not because you walked alone at night, unarmed. Not even with a garden trowel.
Together they sank, stewing in their own heat, and finally, at last, mingled with the chill and starry echoes of the night.
Folly Blaine lives in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Flashes in the Dark, 10Flash Quarterly, and in the anthology Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations.
This story is sponsored by
Hydra House — Publisher of Pacific Northwest science fiction and fantasy, including K.C. Ball’s collection of scifi shorts “Snapshots from a Black Hole & Other Oddities” and Danika Dinsmore’s middle-grade fantasy “The Ruins of Noe,” sequel to “Brigitta of the White Forest.”